Customs

customs

By customs, I don’t mean that it’s customary to say “thank you” when some one gives you a gift. Although if you don’t, then you’re kind of a jerk. I’m talking about the customs agents at the border of a country who inspect your passport, ask you questions, and decide whether or not they’re going to let you enter their country. I have a few friends who are serious world travelers, and they could speak to this subject with much more knowledge than I can, but I can talk about what it’s like to go through customs in 6 different countries, so I figured, why not?Let’s start with a simple question: how do customs agents in the USA compare to customs agents in other countries? The answer: we’re total prigs. Getting back in to this country, as a US CITIZEN, is a pain in the butt. Every US customs agent I’ve ever met has grilled me before letting me come home. Coming back from Canada was the most ridiculous example of this. My husband and I drove across the Canadian border to see Niagra Falls. We drove back the same day. The US customs agent asked us at least 20 questions – including “How do you know this guy?” – “Uh, he’s my husband?” – before he finally waived us through the checkpoint. I started wondering if somebody had hidden a body or some drugs in our car – the way we were being questioned, I thought for sure he was going to search us and find a dead guy in the trunk. The agent was the definition of by-the-book, and it was a tense situation.

The Canadians, on the other hand, didn’t stamp our passports (damn! no proof I was ever there!) or ask us anything other than, “Here to see The Falls? Coming back today? Have a nice time.” So my advice is this: go ahead and drive that dead body into Canada, but for Pete’s sake, don’t drive it back into the US. I don’t have any other advice on body disposal, though – sorry.

The Germans scared the crap out of me. I flew into Stuttgart, just me, alone, and they asked me about a thousand questions. I guess American girls in their twenties don’t travel alone to Stuttgart. So the German customs agent looked at my passport, looked at me, looked back at my passport – back at me. Me. Passport. Me. Passport. This went on for what felt like hours. No smiling, no talking, no nothing. I just stood there and tried not to twitch too much. Here’s how the conversation went after that:

German Customs Agent: “Why are you visiting our country?”

Me, “Uh, I’m visiting a friend.”

GCA: “What friend?”

Me, “A friend who lives here. She used to work with me.”

GCA: “How long have you known this friend?”

Me, “Uh, several years?”

And on and on and on. What is this friend’s name? Where will you be staying? When will you be leaving? What kind of food are you going to eat while you’re here? Okay, so he didn’t ask that last one, but man, I thought at one point, this guy could really give the Gestapo a run for their money! I wanted to yell, “Look! I am not a sketchy character. I even have a German last name!” Which I did at the time. Finally, he let me in. I’ve never been questioned that extensively since, but the US customs guys definitely come in at a close second.

What about the French? Ah, the French. Viva la France! I was fully prepared to answer all sorts of questions about my reason for visiting, length of my stay, etc. They didn’t ask me one question. They didn’t even look at my face as they stamped my passport and waived me past. It was great! I’d go back just for that reason alone.

And the Swiss? They just wanted money. “It’s 40 Swiss Francs to drive onto our highways. Pay up. No I don’t want to see your passport.” We just bought our way in, and that was that. Again, no stamp on the passport though. Rats!

In Mexico they were super friendly. They just smiled, asked us a few questions, and welcomed us into their country. Come! Spend your money here! So happy to have you! Free lobster dinner if you listen to a time share sales pitch.

But every time I leave the US, I come back. Which means more US customs agents. And they just don’t mess around. I haven’t even tried coming from somewhere that’s actually dangerous – I mean, we’re talking about Europe and North America! What countries were you visiting? How long were you gone? What are you bringing back with you? You know, I tried to fit that dead body from Canada in my suitcase, sir, but I just couldn’t cram him in, so really, just some wine and chocolate.

Next on our international travel list: an island, and we’re bringing the kids. Can’t wait to see what kind of questions they get hit with. I am sure of one thing, Corey can’t keep his mouth shut, and he will confess to everything. “I ate 20 hot dogs, I’m bringing an illegal piece of fruit with me, and my parents have a dead guy in their suitcase.”

At the end of the day, I am very glad that these people are doing their jobs and keeping world travelers safe. I do find a lot of humor in their differences, but I’m glad they’re present to stop the people who really are trying to bring in drugs, dead bodies. Or worse.

Think major league baseball is competitive? Try little league.

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“It’s the bottom of the last inning, The Rays are up by two runs, and there are two outs. Can they hold on for the win? Here comes the pitch. And it’s strike one! Here comes the next pitch. Strike two! This kid is on fire! Here comes the next pitch and….it’s strike three! The Rays win it!”

That wasn’t the end of the last Oriole’s game against Tampa Bay. That was Corey’s second playoff game, the game his little league team, The Rays, played against the number one team in the league, the White Sox. At the end, Corey was the catcher, teamed up with a boy who is the best pitcher I’ve seen in this age bracket – he’s the closer, and together he and Corey make a lethal duo. The Rays were clearly the underdogs, but they played hard and never gave up. The win sent every parent and grandparent on the sidelines to their feet in a standing ovation, and almost all of us had tears in our eyes. The win sent our underdogs to the championship game.

When Corey was diagnosed with tricuspid atresia, his father’s first heartbroken words were “no sports.” He’d grown up playing baseball himself, and now we thought our firstborn son would have no chance to experience this part of growing up. If he lived at all. But in time we learned, from Corey’s pediatric cardiologists, that he could “self regulate.” So we tried soccer. Too much running. We tried t-ball, and he loved it. And he was good at it – right from the beginning. He’s smart, and he’s got great hand-eye coordination. It didn’t take long for him to decide that baseball was his sport.

That was six years ago. Once Corey switched from t-ball to baseball, that was the end of participation trophies. He hasn’t earned a trophy in years. Last night, at the championship game, he finally had a crack at being number one and bringing home that trophy. And oh, he wanted it. And we wanted it for him.

Our boys went into last night’s game against the number two team. Still the underdogs. Still with great attitudes. They stood up to the pressure, including all of their wild banshee screaming parents (ahem, guilty – I am THAT parent) endlessly cheering on the sidelines. We were all glued to our seats, calling out “good eye” and “good swing” and “nice hit” and “great pitch” and on and on and on. These kids are nine and ten years old, and they just went out there and did it.

But did they win? Or did they crush our dreams of victory and a shiny trophy for the mantel? That’s right I said “our dreams” – at the beginning of the season, we were losing left and right, and I wasn’t particularly invested in anything other than just a learning season. By last night I was all in – I wanted that trophy for my kid like a junky wants his next hit. I think the only person who wanted it more was Damian. All that sports intensity that just lives inside him came right out last night.

It all came down to the last inning once again. In little league, a maximum of five runs are allowed in any inning except the last inning, when a team may score unlimited runs in order to win the game. We were up 13-7, but they shut us down and stopped our boys from scoring even a single run in the last inning. We had to hold them, just like the previous game. Out came Corey as catcher and the closer to pitch.

I sat on the edge of my chair, bit my nails, and watched the umpire. They allowed one base hit. But no more. In no time flat, the closer struck out three kids and the crowd roared to its feet in a victory cheer! They did it! The boy with a half a heart played a banner game and helped his team to win the championship game. Did I mention that the trophy sure looks nice on our mantel? Nothing quite like the words “first place.”

And did I mention that Corey, along with two of his other teammates, made the all star team? Practice starts tonight…. One last thought – IN YOUR FACE, CHD!

Happy Fontanniversary, Corey!

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Can’t find a chair? Just hop in the trunk.

This is Corey’s 6th Fontanniversary. We are 6 years post-op! And he’s 10 – how did that happen? It’s also my Grandma Anne’s 92nd birthday. My other grandmother, Fran, is about to reach her 93rd birthday next month. Damian’s Grandma Jeanne just hit 93. So basically I’m surrounded by a bunch of willful, stubborn people who just plan to keep right on living indefinitely. Corey came into the world that way – I guess he came by these traits honestly. I’m so glad he did.

How is the heart child doing 6 years after the Fontan? Kicking butt and taking names, that’s how. It’s baseball season, and he plays catcher on defense, a role he loves, because the catcher is involved in all the plays. And, just like everything else Corey does, he’s all-in or he’s not in at all. His speeds are “on” and “off” – nothing in between. This is absolutely inspiring and utterly exhausting.

In school, his grades are As and Bs. More As than Bs, and his Maryland State Assessment test scores for math were off the charts. He creamed everybody. In his school, in his county, even in his state. His dad’s got a master’s in math, though, and I used to tutor college algebra and calculus, so again – good genes. (See what I did there? I just tooted Damian’s horn, Corey’s horn, and my horn too. Toot toot!) Also, through school, he plays the violin, and he loves it. And he’s good at it.

There is no Rubik’s cube that Corey can’t solve!

Yes that statement requires its own paragraph. Let’s see, what else? Oh! We are teaching him to play poker – Texas Hold’em. The Easter Bunny picked him up a set of cards and chips – given his proclivity for math and his luck at cards (his Uncle Dave used to be a professional poker player, so clearly this is genetics again!), we think he could have a smashing good time at this. We plan to get some lessons from his uncle when we visit him in California this year.

Anyway, in summary, the kid has exceeded all our expectations. We hoped he’d be somewhere on the spectrum of normal and quasi-intelligent, but he’s turned out to be a brilliant little being. He’s my miracle. Today and always.

Goodbye Calypso

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Tomorrow I will be making pancakes for breakfast. It’s Thursday. The boys get pancakes on Thursdays. The night before, I always set out the pancake mix, the bowl, the pan, and the cup of water I’ll need in the morning. As I was setting out the water tonight, my first thought was, “I better cover this glass so Calypso doesn’t jump up on the counter in the middle of the night and drink out of it.” And then I remembered that she can’t. She can’t because she’s gone now. She’ll never drink from one of our water glasses again, because this afternoon we took her to the vet and had her euthanized.

It happened so fast. Too fast. Just last week she was fierce. Full of personality. Purring, jumping on our laps, asking for tuna, running around the house, giving us all the love and attitude that she always has. But this week, everything changed.

I remember the moment that I met her. She was just one of a litter who needed a home. But the moment I walked into the house she lived in, I knew she was the one. She marched up to me with her itty bitty little self, looked up, said, “Mew,” with her tiny kitten voice, and that was it. I was in love with her. I picked her up, found that she was so small that she could lie in my hand as I petted her with two fingers. She came home with me that night, and she became my constant companion for almost the next 19 years.

And that is exactly what she’s been. My constant. So many people have walked into and out of my life. I’ve lived in so many different places. Had different cars. Changed jobs. Been married. Had children. Lived through surgeries, tragedies, holidays, ups downs lefts rights this that and the other thing – and through all of it, through every single step, there has been one constant. One tiny little being who has always been with me. And that was Calypso. She was my constant through half of my life on this earth.

That constant is gone now, and a part of my heart is gone too. I had no idea how much this would hurt. I haven’t felt anything like this since the days when we thought we might lose Corey.

I was with her when she died. Damian, Corey, and Mason were all in the room when the vet weighed her, found that she’d wasted to a mere 4 pounds, examined her, and said, “If this were my pet, I would let her go.” Damian and the boys said goodbye to her, and then they left me to see her through to the end. The vet gave her a powerful anesthetic, and in true Calypso fashion, she found one last spike of sass, whipped around and schwacked/hissed at the vet. The vet said, “Whoa! I didn’t expect her to be that fast.” I actually smiled, despite the situation, at that one last “back off!” that my sassy cat whipped out at the very end. Then Calypso turned to me, pressed her little face into my chest, and I stroked her fur, whispered that I loved her, and waited for the medication to take effect.

The final dose of heart-stopping medication was administered as she calmly rested on her side, the vet listened for her heartbeat, said, “Her heart has stopped, she’s gone, I’ll leave you alone for a few minutes.” She left, and I said my final goodbye. Calypso’s passing was peaceful, but it struck me, as I looked at her lying there on the table, that she was so thin, her fur was so knotty, she just looked so wasted and old, that we absolutely made the right decision. Her life was over. She’d refused food and drink for two days. She was done. It was a kindness to let her go.

But it hurts so much. I feel her absence. It’s amazing how quiet it is in our house now. How could a 5.5 pound being bring so much life to a house? So much energy? So much presence? But she did. She was a tiny little being who meant so much to me, to all four of us, and I will miss her every day.

Goodbye, my little Buddha. I love you so much. Be at peace.

The Heart Child is 10!

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And he turned 10 a month ago! And I have not written a single word since January! Which is very sad. Especially considering what a momentous occasion it was to celebrate an entire decade of Corey’s life. The child who has half a heart, who the perinatologist said would not reach his first birthday, has now blasted past 10 birthdays with his hair on fire. That child has more energy than an atomic bomb. He wakes up in the morning, his brain is instantly buzzing, and he is in action from that moment until the moment when his head hits the pillow at night. He gets As and Bs in school, he plays the violin, he is a reporter for his school newspaper, and he plays baseball. And he loves building Legos (like the Leaning Tower of Piza, above), solving Rubik’s cubes, and learning magic tricks.

He is a little miracle.

So why haven’t I written about this little miracle in so long? I blame the two-year-olds. You’re thinking, “Uh, what?” I’m teaching preschool. There are 30 two-year-olds in my life now. And they are wonderful, adorable, laugh-out-loud funny little beings who suck my energy out like a Hoover on steroids. I do love them, though. They just don’t leave much left in my tank for things like blogging.

Anyway, we did celebrate Corey’s big day like he was a rock star. We didn’t have one party. We had two parties. One was an evening event for adults and family members, and the other was an afternoon event at Corey’s favorite arcade – Crabtowne. The first event went off without a hitch. The second event, not so much. It snowed, which turns everybody here in Maryland into giant snow weenies (present company included), and nobody wants to drive anywhere. But! Of the four boys Corey invited to play pinball and old-fashioned Pac-Man, three of them braved the snow, accepted a roll of quarters from us, and played their hearts out for about two hours. In the end, Corey was happy. Other than that, who cares?

Corey is my miracle. And to CHD I would like to say, IN YOUR FACE!

Top 10 Most Disturbing Movie Scenes

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Mom, don’t read this.

So, we are making our Oscar push right now, which means that we are attempting to see as many movies as possible with Oscar nominations. Not just best picture, but actor, short film, make-up – really whatever we can feasibly manage to see before the red carpet parade of stars. If my political research were this intense my voting strategies might be altered.

In any case, Oscar-nominated films often broach difficult, disturbing subjects. “12 Years a Slave” (2013) and “Schlindler’s List” (1993) come to mind. Slavery and the holocaust – pretty much the epitome of difficult and disturbing? They are the kinds of movies that should be made. The kind of movies that remind us of what we are capable of as a race of humans. What we have done to each other. What we will be doomed to do to each other again and again and again if we allow patterns in history to repeat themselves by embracing ignorance. But man, are they hard to watch! I watched “Schlindler’s List,” and there are moments from that movie that are forever burned into my brain. I could not bring myself to watch “12 Years a Slave.” I just couldn’t do it. I wimped out.

Recently we saw the controversial, and Oscar nominated, film “American Sniper” (2014). It was excellent. Riveting. Revolting. Incredible. Chris Kyle is an American Hero in my eyes. He “just wanted to get the bad guys.” And, as the “most lethal American sniper,” he certainly got a lot of bad guys. I’m glad I saw the film. And not because it was fun to watch Bradley Cooper parade around in uniform with his big guns blazing. Ahem.

Wait, what was I saying? I got distracted there for a moment. Oh yes! Right. Difficult and disturbing films.

During the course of my time as a film buff, and an Oscar buff, I have come across a lot of disturbing scenes in films. I’ve seen enough movies (even though I bailed on “12 Years a Slave”) to have compiled a list of seriously disturbing scenes. I thought I had my number 1 for all time, which could never be touched, until I saw “American Sniper.” And now it’s been usurped. Sadly. I’m sure there are many scenes that may trump these (or should be included), but I can only use my own cinematographic experience.

Here is my Top 10 List of Most Disturbing Movie Scenes

10. Regan, possessed by a demon, scene with the metal crucifix (expletives involved that I won’t repeat – if you’ve seen the movie, you know the scene), “The Exorcist,” 1973

9. The eyes of Alex are forcefully held open while he is subjected to endless scenes of brutal imagery, “A Clockwork Orange,” 1971

8. Bill confesses to his son that he’s drugged and raped two of his friends, who are children, “Happiness,” 1998

7. The head in a box, “Se7en,” 1995

6. Church explosion that kills four innocent young girls in their church, committed by white racists, “Selma,” 2014

5. Gang rape of Mrs. Alexander in “A Clockwork Orange,” 1971

4. Jewish children hide in the feces of a latrine to keep from being killed by Nazis, “Schlindler’s List,” 1993

3. Beating death of a man using a fire extinguisher to the face, “Irreversible,” 2002

2. Brutal 9-minute long rape/beating of Alex in “Irreversible,” 2002

1. Use of a power drill to torture and then murder a young boy by a terrorist known as The Butcher, “American Sniper,” 2014

In an Emergency, Some Unexpected Perspective

water

“I don’t have any water.” My mother made this statement, over the phone, to her condominium association yesterday. Instead of being told, “We’ll send someone to help you right away.” Or, “We’re aware of a problem, and we’re trying to fix it.” Or really any other statement to the effect of, “We’ll help you,” instead she was told that this did not qualify as an “emergency,” but rather that it was just an “inconvenience.”

Say what?

The following basic formula applies: Humans – Water = Death. We can’t live without water. It’s not “convenient.” It’s essential. Ergo, my mother’s predicament was clearly in the “emergency” category. If a complete lack of water is not an emergency, then what IS an emergency to these people? A roof on fire? Or is she going to have to call on her neighbors to start a bucket brigade in that case too? I mean, if we don’t need water, then who needs a roof? Just pitch a tent in your bedroom! Water, shelter, food – these are just modern amenities. Did I mention that it’s barely above freezing outside right now too?

Right.

The condominium association representative told my mother to call a plumber. Then she told my mother to take a hairdryer and blow on the pipes for an hour herself. An hour. On the pipes. With a hairdryer. This seems like a good activity for a senior citizen WITHOUT WATER.

Grrr.

So my mother did all of this, and then she called me, told me what was going on, and asked to come spend the night at our house. Where we have water and therefore are not dead. So of course I said, “Come on over,” and the boys chirped, “Yippeee! Gaga is spending the night!”

In the middle of the night, Corey crept into my mother’s room and climbed into bed with her. He didn’t say a word, he just pulled the covers up to his chin and fell immediately back to sleep. And my mother, who was completely stressed out and unable to sleep, passed the time by watching his face. He’s a peaceful little being when he’s asleep. And he’s a miracle, this child with half a heart. And she realized, as she watched him sleep, that this little being is alive and well and blessing all of our lives, and the rest of it just doesn’t matter.

She drove home this morning to find that the water was on again in her home. This crisis has passed.